Japan Import: Amusement Vision's brace of Ryu Ga Gotoku games on the PS2 (the first of which was released in the UK as Yakuza) effectively picked up where Sega-AM2's unfinished Shenmue series left off, full of memorable characters and big fight scenes.
Some things have changed in Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! aka Yakuza 3. This third game in the series is set in 17th century Kyoto and its surrounds, and concerns itself more with samurai Zelda-style mega-sword... and so on.
Most of the game's fights are just scuffles between Kiryu and street toughs, but even these are enjoyable and are invaluable for gaining money and power. Really dramatic sequences, however - fights that progress Kenzan!'s story - are set up to be massively entertaining, leaving Kiryu to defeat a group of ninjas inside a burning whorehouse or assassinate the estranged son of Leyasu Tokugawa as he's sleeping.
Learning to use weapons effectively, levelling-up, obtaining useful items, and acquiring knowledge of new special attacks (most of these are taught by sensei characters in dojos and elsewhere) are all deeply engrossing activities. But Kenzan! is particularly satisfying because you can lose yourself in its version of 17th century Kyoto carrying out daily activities.
Mini-games such as shogi (Japanese chess), archery, ten-pin bowling (!) and ninja star-throwing target practice are all very well done - we lost several hours rising the shogi ranks - and you can even spend money on geisha girls. Wahey.
Street fighting is still a big part of the game. There are even spooky story parallels between Kenzan! and the first two Gotoku titles, with Yakuza's lead character Kiryu Kazuma and a young lass called Haruka both returning in Kenzan!, albeit in a chronologically befuddling scenario 400-odd years before their Yakuza debuts. (They haven't aged a bit.)
From the moment you see the game's intro movie, a stylishly shot montage of war from the 1600s overdubbed with an original J-hiphop track from a veteran Japanese rapper called ZEEBRA, it's clear that Kenzan! is no tweed-jacketed history teacher. It stars a famous 17th century swordsman called Musashi Miyamoto,
but it also features melon-cutting and tortoise-racing mini-games.
In spite of its charming self-deprecation, Kenzan! is a deep game. You can play it for 20 hours and still only discover a fraction of the fighting moves. And that's another thing: Musashi Miyamoto may be the historically faithful name of Kenzan!'s only playable character, but a bloody misunderstanding results in Musashi's face being Xeroxed on 'WANTED' posters across the land, so he adopts the Kiryu Kazumanosuke nom de guerre early on in the game.
This is typical of the intrigue that runs through Kenzan!, where every cutscene reveals another fascinating twist, cleverly tying together Kiryu's old flames and new female acquaintances while telling a story of murderous betrayal and identity theft.
The main characters here are virtually acted, and voiced, by recognisable Japanese actors and actresses, including Susumu Terajima (star of the brilliant 2002 film Blessing Bell). They do a fine job and are supported by an excellent script, elevating Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan!
to somewhere near the level of a well-planned interactive movie.
Kenzan! isn't just a filmic delight - it's a hugely satisfying game. Amusement Vision has found the perfect balance for Kenzan!'s playable side - something like two parts fighting and two parts exploration to one part mini-games.